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Are Students their University or Colleges’ Customers

Are university or College students customers of their institutions (subsequent references to college include university)? I am not referring to a Student-as-customer’s movement that attempts to hike revenues by lowering standards and pandering students. This approach compromises the college’s mission, vision, and values while enabling entitlement-minded students. I disagree with it. Instead, I refer to a special partnership that exists between a college, delivering its vision and mission,  and college students, who do their best in the educational infrastructure that’s provided.

To answer the student-as-customers question properly, it’s crucial we understand essential traits of a customer, and the basic features of a business. That’s why I address the important customer and business relationship in such detail early in the paper.  Meanwhile, ninety-one percent of respondents to my survey (Bell, 2016) asking the captioned, said a college’s administration should treat college students as customers. Eighty-four percent said professors should be sensitive and responsive to students’ particular needs.

In this paper, I examine these areas:

  1. The customer and business exchange
  2. Anatomy of good customer relationships
  3. What the best college teachers do
  4. Perceptions of college students’ role as customers
  5. Treat college students as customers but don’t compromise values and standards
  6. Organizational structure of colleges
  7. Survey findings
  8. Conclusions

College Students Are Customers

The customer and business exchange

College Students Are Partners and Customers of Their Universities

Who is a customer? Simply, a person or organization that buys goods or services from another person or organization is a customer or client. That’s it. You are a customer when you buy coffee from Starbucks, an iPhone from Apple, a case study from Harvard, or when you take a course from the University of Regina.

Is the customer always right? As a summer student at Selfridges, London, England, in the 1960s, that was the mantra I learned. Selfridges’ views were simple. Listen to the customer, understand the customer, and accept what the customer says about the product or service. Don’t argue with the customer. After the customer leaves, evaluate what she said, discuss it with your supervisor, and he or she will decide if change is needed. Does this attitude apply at a college today? Yes! Colleges must listen to students’ feedback, and where the college deems applicable, change. Even so, the context is different from a company selling pop.

When a customer meets her investment advisor, she expects expert advice. So, too, with students. They must understand colleges have standards that will not be compromised—grades, degrees, or other outcomes. Although, as a customer, the student should expect to get what she paid for. And that’s the major challenge we face. What is the student buying? I will develop this shortly.

What is a business? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as the activity of making, buying, selling goods, or providing services in exchange for money. A business transaction involves a trade with a customer; one group offers goods or services while the other decides to buy or not.

What should a student expect in this exchange? A specific degree? A job in her field of study? A college can’t promise either. However, a college must be clear on its deliverables to students. This is the only way to deal decisively with the student entitlement syndrome.

A college must deliver what it promises in it’s vision, mission, and values’ statements, and in courses’ syllabi. Delivery must include convenient access to needed facilities, and professors committed to engaging students, and engineering an environment in which they learn (Bains 2004, p.20). Meanwhile, the student’s role is to work to his or her maximum potential in the available environment. Success flows out of  the partnership between the college and the student. It is difficult to measure, and is not necessarily reflected in a student’s grade.

Many people do not accept the students-as-customers view because they see it naively; they do not understand a business’ purpose. Many believe a business’ primary goal is to make money.  Others think a business must cater to every customer’s demand, even the irrational, unreasonable ones. However, no successful business’ goal is to make money; that’s a byproduct. Besides, there are limits which businesses will go to retain unreasonable, difficult customers.

Anatomy of good customer relationships

Let’s review briefly a few experts’ views about business. The late management guru and author Peter Drucker (2008, p. 20) said there is only one valid definition of business purpose: To create a customer. Businesses do this by developing, maintaining, and delivering excellent goods and services consistently to customers. Richard Branson (August 2014), Virgin Airlines billionaire CEO, is certain business is about people, people, people:

To learn whether what we’re doing is working; we listen to feedback from our employees, which we gather through ordinary conversations and through satisfaction surveys. We also measure success by referrals, since there is no stronger endorsement than when an employee tells a friend or relative that a company is a great place to work.

Notice, Branson speaks about employees. He knows exceptional customer relationships start with great rapport with employees at all levels. Glassdoor’s research (2015) shows what we would expect; a happy workplace culture translates into better company performance. The opposite is true.

Perennially successful Southwest Airlines practices the same principle. In a CBS (2007) interview, Herb Kelleher, the airline’s former chairman commented:

You put your employees first and if you take care of them, then they will take good care of you, then your customers will come back, and your shareholders will like that, so it’s really a unity.

Successful businesses know an employee-centric organization produces a committed workforce, and a healthy, vibrant operation. Steel producer Nucor Corp (, 2016) has a no layoffs policy. Southwest, FedEx, Aflac, Toyota Motor North America and others do not have formal no layoffs policies, but they have no history of layoffs. Southwest has never laid off an employee and has never lost money even during the Great Recession, and following September 2011 tragedy when air travel declined sharply.

Colleges are people intensive organizations. Administrators and professors design and maintain learning infrastructures for students to learn—that’s the theory. It’s all about people. According to Jim Collins (2001, p. 13), “‘People are your most important asset’” turns out to be wrong. The right people are.” Marriott Hotel’s principles include “[g]o to every length to find, hire, and train good employees and treat them like your family. This is the crux of your whole operation.” Harvard Business Review (2014) article, Netflix Reinvented Hr, highlighted Netflix’ common-sense approach to human resource management. It showed a policy focussed on empowering and treating people with respect.

Messiah Jesus taught us the essence of all relationships. While reminding us of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6, He mentioned the second greatest commandment is to love others as you love you (Matthew 22:36-40). Applying this commandment will earn trust and respect from students. Great organizations focus heavily on employee satisfaction because they know happy employees will provide excellent customer service.

Colleges are businesses, too. They provide services in exchange for money; some for profit, others not for profit. Whether for profit or not, each college should provide the best possible service to users of those services—students.

The challenge the college has is communicating clearly and unambiguously to students that they are not buying a university degree or access to their dream jobs. Unlike the typical exchange in a business transaction, the customer (student) gets as much as she works for. Success is in the journey. Success results from a partnership. The college provides the best environment for the student to flourish, and the student takes maximum advantage of available facilities.

The college’s administration and faculty are key players. They must understand their responsibilities in this partnership with students. They should be held accountable to carrying out their roles. If the right people are employed, organized, and deployed in the right spots, excellent relationships will exist internally. In turn, that will hit the quality of faculty and administration’s delivery of services to students.

What the best college teachers do

Ken Bains’ book, What the Best College Teachers Do, reflects a fifteen-year study of almost one hundred college and university teachers in various fields. He offers valuable help for educators about how to get the best from students:

At the core of most professors’ ideas about teaching is a focus on what the teacher does rather than what students are supposed to learn. … In contrast, the best educators thought of teaching as anything they might do to help and encourage students to learn. Teaching is engaging students, engineering an environment in which they learn. (Bains 2004, p.20)

Bains’ work shows that the best teachers have a thorough knowledge of their subjects, and they know how to engage and challenge students to produce impassioned responses. Most of all, Bains believe two things fervently: teaching matters and students can learn.

Bains didn’t seek to tackle, and so did not address whether students were customers. He examined the most effective ways to teach students to improve the probability they will learn. Whether we call students customers or not; whether the context is Christian or not; we must respect students, treat them with dignity, and do to them what we would like done to us. It’s that simple. If we don’t like the word “customers,” let’s use another, but colleges must seek continually to create and maintain conditions for students to learn.

Perception of college students’ role as customers

Randall Franz’ (1998) concluded, “[t]reating students like customers undermines their education. Catering to their every need and desire in an effort to delight the customer robs students of an active role in their own education.” This conclusion shows a lack of understanding of the special type of business a college operates. My dentist does not cater to my every need and desire in an effort to delight me. On the contrary, she told me, her customer, to my dismay, I needed a root canal! So, too, with the college, it has standards that it must maintain, even those some students might not like them.

Treena Gillespie Finney and R. Zachary Finney (2010, pp. 276-291), researching students as customers, concluded,  “[c]onsistent with exchange theory, students who perceived themselves as customers were more likely to feel entitled and to view complaining as beneficial.”

To be sure, a student with the customer focus mentality might feel entitled. This is merely another challenge the college must deal with in engineering the learning environment. Entitlement culture pervades society. The current generation of students live in an entitlement bubble. Governments foster it and its cousin, victim mentality. These are separate issues to which colleges must be alert, but not condone.

When marketing drives the students-as-customers’ philosophy, primarily to stop declining revenues or to grow revenues, college students perceive improved services, lower educational quality, and easy course achievements. This produces negative effects on student’s intentions to study at those colleges (Watjatrakul, 2014). Colleges that adopt so called students-as-customers marketing themes to improve revenues are insincere and unethical; they won’t survive long term.

Treat College Students as Customers but don’t Compromise Values and Standards

Colleges should treat students as customers because that is respectful. Treating college students as customers means providing disciplined, exemplary services by the right people, consistent with the college’s vision, mission, values, and goals. Colleges must stay true to their visions and missions and confront brutal facts (Collins, 2001, p. 13) of pervasive entitlement culture, and politically correct thinking. They must not condone political correctness, pander to victim mentality, or encourage entitled behaviour. Acceding to these demands could lead to replacing math with diversity as a required course to graduate, to boot (Detroit Free Press, 2016)!

Colleges must resist the temptation to compromise their mission, values, and principles to chase growth.  When a college unwisely chooses growth as a goal, it will feel it must cater to every student and might lower standards. Most of all, colleges need to work continually to wipe out asinine, bureaucratic, administrative practices.

I meet several students with entitlement attitudes at my college. However, that does not detract from my goal to create the best learning conditions possible for my students. After two unsuccessful attempts to meet a student for a routine meeting, he told me he was busy and I needed to keep trying to find a date that fits his schedule. Talk about entitlement!  Later, we met and he understood that his behaviour was not consistent with his goal as a future business person. All I did was presented a few word pictures of the potential negative effects of his behaviour in different contexts. He got it!

My students know I will do everything feasible to help them learn. Equally, they know when they are not on time for a lecture they cannot attend that class. As well, they know when I do not agree in advance to accept their papers late; I won’t accept those papers after their due dates. They understand the essence of our exchange. I am committed to create the best possible learning conditions for them, and I expect them to commit to learn. To help cement this partnership, I explain my standards in writing before the course starts, and discuss them during my first class. I enforce these standards respectfully and graciously.

As well, I apply three principles to all students. First, I love students equally, but treat them uniquely; I do not treat students equally.  Second, I commit to treat each as I would like to be treated. Third, I commit to the TAP principle: to be transparent, approachable, and predictable. It’s not easy to reach college students, but we must keep doing what we know is right.

Businesses don’t change their approaches to serve customers because customers have poor attitudes. Indeed, they find ways to reach those customers. But, sometimes they decide they won’t be able to satisfy some customers. Colleges must examine themselves, learn about their customers (students), and ensure their products, and services are helpful to students.  This is an ongoing, challenging, but rewarding process.

Organizational structure of colleges 

Why don’t most colleges strive for excellence in engineering environments for students to learn and grow? I think there are two basic reasons.

First, many colleges do not survive by earning 100% of  their incomes. College students pay fees, but generally, that’s not enough to cover the college’s full costs. So, the college makes up the shortfalls with funds from governments, donors, alumni, and others. Sadly, where an organization does not have to earn all its income, it tends to become bureaucratic like governments, and does not operate with a culture of excellence. Since leaving my private sector job 14 years ago, I have been associated with several non-profits, mainly Christian, and I have not seen a continuing focus on excellence in their services’ delivery.

It’s no secret alumni and donors who believe in a non-profit’s cause do not demand performance excellence from supported organizations. Leaders in not-profits have an escape hatch; they can fill financial shortfalls with emotional appeals to supporters. Many don’t address difficult, particularly people-related root causes, but address financial symptoms.

Leaders in non-profits do not have the pressure of bottom line performance from shareholders demanding reasonable returns on investment. This masks incompetence and ineffectiveness that tend to become part of the organization’s embedded culture. That’s why I think it is essential college leaders develop, track, and be held accountable to achieve relevant key performance indicators (Waal, D.A., Goedegebuure, R., & Geradts, P., 2011). Still, accountability must start by hiring, training, empowering, and rewarding the right people for each activity.

Though not dealing directly with college fundraising, University of Pennsylvania’s Marketing faculty (2007) reported professor Deborah Small et al’s research findings that reinforces the power of emotional appeals.

Second, many colleges’ structure create divisions between faculties and administrations. There are faculty senates (us), that tend to deal with faculty and academic issues, and there is the administration (them). There are several faculty senate models (Minor, 2002), some more divisive than others. In some instances, the faculty senate is the final voice on certain matters. This is absurd and creates a platform to veer from the college’s mission and vision.

There is insufficient research data on faculty senates’ effectiveness (Lee, B. 1991).  Still, it is obvious that where there is an adversarial relationship between executive leadership and faculty, college governance will be impacted negatively.

My alma mater, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one of a few large colleges without a faculty senate. Here is one faculty member’s view of why MIT doesn’t have a faculty senate: “I believe at MIT we aspire to be a community in which the administration and the faculty are in harness together.”
With the faculty senate/administration divide, colleges do not treat people the way great businesses do. Colleges, therefore, rely almost entirely on professors’ intrinsic motivation to step out of the traditional role Bain mentions in his book. Though intrinsic motivation can be developed, it can wither and die in a toxic environment. Meanwhile, administrations wallow in bureaucratic rules, and leadership’s focus externally on fundraising.

I think those two issues contribute significantly to the lack of a unified attention to create the best possible learning environment for students. It leads inevitably to students not treated as valued customers.

Survey findings

Sixty-four people replied to my ten-question survey titled: A Customer Buys Goods and Services from an Organization. Are College Students Customers of Their Colleges? Ninety-one percent believed college administrations should serve students as customers. But the most surprising finding to me was 44 percent of people who attended public colleges said they were treated as customers, compared with 33 percent who attended private colleges. I expected the reverse result. Here are some other facts from the 64 respondents:

  • 61% attended private colleges
  • 63% (56% public, 67% private) said they were not treated as customers
  • 63% said college students are customers because they paid fees
  • 17% said college students should not be treated as customers because academia is different from business
  • 84% of those treated like customers believed this created a better study environment for them
  • 84% said professors should be sensitive and responsive to specific student needs (most stressed that professors must not pander college students, but in exceptional situations professors should respond)
  • 66% were male

A significant number of comments by respondents said college students should be treated as customers vis-à-vis  the administration. However, they said the college student-professor relationship is different. Professors should not negotiate, nor tolerate entitled behaviour.

I sent the survey to a cross section of (100) people: those who attend(ed) public and private colleges, current and past students, male and female, primarily folks in Canada and USA, college executives, and faculty members.


Academic research on this subject tends to look at college students as customers as amovement.” The research focusses either on colleges that adopt this approach to increase income, or students desiring this alternative to lower colleges’ standards. These are wrong reasons to adopt this approach. More research is needed to look at effects on colleges that adopt the partnership approach posited in this paper.

It’s time we understand that treating college students like customers is not a movement, but a legitimate way for colleges to operate. Treating college students as customers means providing the best possible infrastructure for them to learn and grow. It does not mean pandering to politically correct, entitled, and victim behaviours. Colleges that understand this and treat students like customers will develop a sustainable competitive advantage.

© 2016 Michel A Bell


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Finney, Treena Gillespie, and Finney R. Zachary, Are students their universities’ customers? An exploratory study, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Education & Training, Vol. 52 No. 4, 2010, pp. 276-291

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Waal, D.A., Goedegebuure, R., & Geradts, P. (2011). The impact of performance management on the results of a non‐profit organization. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, 60(8), 778-796.

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Are Students their University or Colleges’ Customers


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